Kobe Bryant is swiftly regaining his confidence and timing. His conditioning improves daily, and he’s already leading the Los Angeles Lakers in scoring again.
Yet thanks to Goran Dragic and the exciting Phoenix Suns, Kobe still doesn’t have a victory.
Dragic scored 12 of his 31 points in the fourth quarter and the Suns beat the Lakers 114-108 Tuesday night, dropping Bryant to 0-2 in his comeback.
Bryant scored 20 points while playing 29 mostly sharp minutes in his second game back from nearly eight months out with a torn Achilles tendon. He led a fourth-quarter rally by the Lakers, but they only got within four points with 3 minutes left before Phoenix held on.
Bryant gave his performance a "B" grade, but realizes he’s got more work to do — both on his game and his chemistry with the rest of the Lakers. Bryant had just three turnovers against Phoenix after committing eight in his season debut two days ago against Toronto, but contributed just two rebounds and three assists while the Suns comfortably held on.
"It’s a process," Bryant said. "You just continue to figure out what you can and can’t do. Every game, you try to step up and do a little bit more and just go from there."
The Suns handled the Lakers with teamwork, shredding Los Angeles’ lousy defense during a 35-point fourth quarter to earn their first three-game winning streak of the season.
Marcus Morris scored 22 points and Eric Bledsoe had 18 points and nine assists for the surprising Suns, who never trailed after the opening minutes. Phoenix held off the Lakers with superb fourth-quarter play from both Morris brothers, who scored nine points apiece down the stretch. Markieff Morris finished with 15 points.
"We kept pushing the ball and didn’t slow it down too much," Marcus Morris said of the fourth quarter. "We came out with a lot of energy and kind of got them on their toes. They were playing small, so we had a great opportunity to attack the boards. And that’s what we did."
Pau Gasol scored 19 points while Jodie Meeks, Nick Young and Jordan Hill added 13 apiece for the Lakers, who have lost three of four to fall back below .500. Los Angeles’ NBA-best bench contributed 43 points while using just four reserves, but Phoenix dominated the boards, outrebounding the Lakers 43-33.
Phoenix hadn’t beaten the Lakers at Staples Center since November 2010.
"I think we have a group of guys who play hard all the time, and they’re not selfish," Phoenix coach Jeff Hornacek said. "They genuinely like each other to do well. If guys take bad shots, we’ll take them out of the game. But for the most part, they run our offense. We’ve got two great point guards in Goran — who had a great game — and Eric."
Dragic hit two 3-pointers and didn’t miss any of his 11 free throws, finishing one point shy of his career high in his latest outstanding performance against the Lakers. Phoenix’s small, active lineup led by Dragic and Bledsoe was too much for the slower Lakers in the final minutes.
"It’s there. We’ve just got to execute a little better," Bryant said. "The willingness and competitiveness is there. We just have to make sure we come out in the right areas and execute it."
The game was another bump in a long road for Bryant, who had nine points in a rocky season debut on Sunday night. But Kobe felt fresher than expected after his first game since April, and coach Mike D’Antoni is still limiting Bryant’s minutes to keep him healthy for the team’s stretch of four road games in five nights starting later this week.
Bryant started off his night against Phoenix with his first dunk of the season off a two-footed leap in the first quarter. Bryant still emphasized playmaking over shooting, but played a more polished floor game in the first half with 10 points, just one turnover and two assists, including the pass for Gasol’s buzzer-beating jumper.
NOTES: Shawne Williams got a technical foul in the final seconds of the first half for putting a forearm into Dragic, who crashed to the ground. … D’Antoni changed his lineup, putting Meeks and Williams in the starting five and bumping C Robert Sacre to the bench. … Phoenix C Alex Len didn’t play with a sore left ankle.